Author Margaret Atwood Charms Chapel Audience

Author Margaret Atwood speaks in the Chapel on March 4.
Author Margaret Atwood speaks in the Chapel on March 4.
A writer from age 16, Margaret Atwood has created a successful career, garnered many awards in both poetry and prose, and has received international acclaim. Throughout her career she has shown loyalty to her fellow writers and to the causes she champions. 

According to Atwood, true pessimists never refer to themselves as such. Instead, she jokes that they tend to prefer the label “realists.” By this logic, Atwood proceeded to declare herself a realist. Indeed, her work seems to indicate a serious if not grim outlook on environmental issues and the destructive potential of modern technology. Yet in her March 4 lecture at Hamilton, Atwood had the packed Chapel roaring with laughter. 

As the focus for her speech, Atwood chose to recount and answer some of the questions she had been asked over the course of her career concerning her personal ideology, her life, and her writing. These ranged from “Why are there so many tins of sardines in your work?” to “Does the paper book have a future?” all of which she answered not just humorously, but thoughtfully. 

This balance between humor and social criticism seems to play a major role in Atwood’s work. She mentioned that one will probably never read a funnier book about the near-extinction of the human race than in her dystopian trilogy. Her “realist” outlook is further diminished by her assertion that all writers must be “secret optimists” in order to brave the process of completing a novel. 

An enjoyable feature of the lecture was Atwood’s fair, rational approach to issues she clearly feels strongly about. As Associate Professor of English Naomi Guttman mentioned in her introduction, Margaret Atwood is involved in multiple causes, including feminism and human rights. Yet her lecture contained no diatribes nor did she preach to her audience. Instead, she maintained an open view, especially with regards to genetic modification, specifying it as a “tool” that humans can employ positively or negatively. 

She made many good-natured jokes about her homeland, Canada, and yet spoke of her devotion to bolstering the country’s literary reputation. When relating a question she had been asked previously, “Is there hope?” Atwood stated “I recommend it. Just not witless hope.” Her ability to examine issues from many sides, particularly while using a humorous approach, contributed to the audience’s capacity to relate to the speech. 

Atwood made it a point to explain that she frequently “feeds” her characters; that is, she literally writes about them eating. In addition, she stated that a plot without any “trivial facts” cannot function as a believable or interesting piece of literature. She showed a level of intimacy with her characters, as though understanding their importance not as literary pawns but as human beings. When asked about how she formulates plotlines, Atwood jokingly explained that she places her right hand on the table, the left in the air, closes her eyes and does not do anything. After a while, “an idea is sure to follow”. The simplicity of this statement seems ironic coming from someone whose writing exhibits themes that are so complex and thought-provoking.

Atwood’s lecture indicates that writing is an organic process, one that requires meditation, laughter, and perhaps occasionally putting a hand on the table and simply closing one’s eyes. 

The author’s lecture covered science fiction in the 1940s, anti-feminism in the 1970s, her own subgenre “speculative fiction,” and modern technology, as well as countless topics in between. She spoke of evolutionary ideas as well as the race between green technology and “disastrous collapse.” The worldview reflected in her speech is broad and tolerant, yet keen and understanding. 

Professor Guttman referred to Atwood as “one of the world’s greatest living writers,” and after Atwood’s lecture at Hamilton, it is easy to see how she could deserve such a title.
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